Colleen Young, right, works with volunteers at a food distribution in Schenley Plaza in Oakland. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Colleen Young starts each workday trying to help Pennsylvania politicians and policymakers find the mislaid political will that she believes can reduce — if not completely end — hunger for the estimated 1,136,400 state residents living without proper daily nutrition. 

Since May 2022, she’s served as director of government affairs for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, a nonprofit agency that opened in 1980 as a small Hill District food pantry. Today, the organization operates from a 96,000-square-foot facility in Duquesne storing and distributing 42 million meals a year across 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties.

Last month, Young’s advocacy efforts took on new urgency when one in five Pennsylvania households saw a dramatic decrease in the amount of their monthly federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotments. 

“With the current rising rate of inflation,” she says, “the SNAP benefit decrease means more people will need food bank assistance more often.” 

It’s a challenge that will test the problem-solving skills Young has developed over the last two decades working for the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, Fund for the Public Interest, Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement and the Fairfax County Department of Family Services in Virginia. While working at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, Young coordinated programs for workforce development, family support partnerships, emergency financial assistance, school attendance, early childhood mental health and a text-based mentoring project for new mothers.

Colleen Young, director of government affairs for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, works at a food distribution in Schenley Plaza in Oakland. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

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NEXTpittsburgh: You’ve been involved in community service your entire work career. What drew you to that path? 

Colleen Young: It started with the values instilled in me at home, in church, in school. Being of service to others has always been something that was a big part of my family. 

NEXTpittsburgh: Where did you grow up? 

Young: Northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C. Both my parents worked for an airline, and I had family all over the country. I got to travel a lot as a child, and that shaped my worldview quite a bit. I’d visit an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm in rural Alabama, and they had a lifestyle and way of being wholly different than my relatives who lived in a high-rise in downtown Chicago. Seeing that variety was a big piece of shaping my ability to understand that somebody’s ZIP code does define a lot about their life and their access to resources. 

NEXTpittsburgh: When you first heard about food insecurity in America, did you realize the extent of the problem? Current reports suggest it affects as many as 34 million Americans — one in every 10 people in the country.

Young: We often have these images in our minds about starving children in various parts of the world suffering hunger because of war and widespread famine. You don’t see that extreme kind of hunger on a day-to-day basis in America. When we talk about hunger in America, we don’t necessarily mean people are starving and going into a medical emergency. We mean that the quality and the amount of food they’re eating are not sufficient for them to thrive. They’re eating something, but the food they’re able to access doesn’t meet their daily needs, and their health is adversely affected.

Sometimes hunger in America looks like parents going without food so their kids can eat. Sometimes it looks like a person working multiple jobs and still not being able to afford food that has nutritional value. We want people to have whole and healthy lives and make food choices that are healthy for them and fit within their dietary needs.

Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distribution coordinator Maddie Pawlina (center), works with volunteers at a food distribution in Schenley Plaza in Oakland. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: Your master’s degree in social work studies at Pitt had a focus on community organizing and social administration. What interested you in those subjects? 

Young: I knew I wanted to do something to change systems in ways that could help a large number of people. That’s called “macro-level social work,” and the idea is to look at the policies and practices in place to make sure they’re equitable and serving the most number of people with the best practices. That was the problem-solving approach I was drawn to. 

NEXTpittsburgh: How do you use that approach in what you try to achieve every day?

Young: We talk directly with our elected officials, of course. We also partner with other advocates working in the food security field. The Food Bank has an enormous network of partners, volunteers, donors and neighbors who participate in the pantry program. We ask them to help us understand what things we can do, big or small, that could make their work easier. 

We know there are pockets of access disparities in many urban neighborhoods and rural areas alike. We want people who live in those communities to have a voice in the advocacy process to make change. That level of community-based advocacy will have an even bigger impact on how government officials address food insecurity.

NEXTpittsburgh: What new initiatives has the Food Bank come up with? 

Young: We’re fortunate to have partnerships across multiple industries. Grocery retailers and farmers help us think through problems and come up with solutions. With Giant Eagle, we have just opened an on-site food pantry modeled on a contemporary grocery store instead of a traditional pantry. You have your own shopping cart, and shelves are stocked with food the same way as a grocery store. It’s called The Market and it just feels like any normal trip to a regular grocery store. 

We’re also working on a process where people can order their food online in advance and have those items already packaged for them to pick up. About half of our community distributions are walk-up distributions, where people are able to select items they want to fit their dietary needs.

And there is innovative work being done in reducing food waste — everything from rescuing unused food from retailers to organizing volunteers to go to farms and glean fresh produce that isn’t going to be sold commercially. 

Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distribution boxes in Allentown. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: I’m surprised when I meet folks who do not believe there are hungry people in America. What are ways you’ve found to engage individuals to learn and care more about food insecurity?

Young: It’s important to dispel myths and change public perception about what hunger looks like. Hunger does not discriminate according to your education or background or your political beliefs. Our website has a section called Stories of Change, and the stories are told by the people themselves about the difference food bank access made in their lives. 

NEXTpittsburgh: I saw that page, and it’s very enlightening. There are military veterans, caregivers, even chefs and social workers.

Young: These are voices of people who are struggling economically and just can’t get enough food without additional support. If we can personalize what it means for ordinary people to not have enough food, we can bring a larger number of people into the conversation. 

At Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank we are very focused on current policies that can make a difference today. People need to be food secure today. But we’re also thinking about long-term ways to not just reduce hunger but end it. For good. The human food system is fragile. The war in Ukraine interrupted the global food supply system, and we know climate change is impacting agriculture and how much food can be grown. Getting people from different viewpoints and industries together to solve the problem together is essential.

L.E. McCullough

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.